Palm oil problems: a legacy of profit-over-people

An oil palm-- Elaeis oleifera

An oil palm (Elaeis oleifera).

One of our favorite Co-Soap customers/enthusiasts who hails all the way from Gainesville, FL has brought our attention to Palm Oil. Being that she is extremely allergic to the stuff, it’s no wonder she can’t get enough of our pure, simple soap!

While it is so good to hear that our soap has been found as a healthy alternative for this upstanding individual, we also felt the need to address some of the huge problems associated with palm oil given it’s ubiquity in thousands of personal use products. While palm oil is bad for the health of our much-appreciated and sensitively-skinned customer, it is even more heinous in terms of it’s environmental and social legacy of destruction. So, if you find yourself wondering why palm oil is so detrimental to the health of our earth and it’s people, read on fellow co-soaper, read on.

A world map comparing palm-oil productivity in various regions

This world map compares levels of palm oil production in various regions. Green dots are usually a sign that you need to go see a doctor.

Palm oil’s imperialist roots

Palm oil’s known roots lead us all the way back to ancient Egypt around 3000 B.C., where it was used mostly as a dietary supplement and by the 1500s B.C. it’s use had popularized and spread all over West Africa. It wasn’t until 1848 that palm oil found it’s way from Africa to Southeast Asia, and just in case you fell asleep during this part of World History 101, you could say that the late-nineteenth century in Africa and Southeast Asia is noted for, uh, colonialism.

an 1895 lithograph nicknamed "the yellow peril," instructs Europeans in its title to protect their most sacred possessions.

"Völker Europas wahret eure heiligsten Güter," nicknamed "the yellow peril." The title translates into English as "Peoples of europe, protect your most sacred possessions." Ironic, no?

It was like a debutante party for Europeans, but it was more like date rape for the natives. First attracted to Southeast Asia in the 16th century because it was a lucrative trade route, European “settlers” decided to stay and pillage the earth and the culture for centuries until the close of World War II. So anyways, Europeans brought palm oil from Africa to Southeast Asia in the late-nineteenth century and started mass producing it to use as a machine lubricant and for soap products during the Industrial Revolution.

So World War II ends and everyone goes back home, right? Nope. If there is one “good” thing to be said about palm oil, it is that the reddish goop is insanely profitable, and this fact is not lost on the independent governments of many foreign nations. Many European and American companies own palm oil plantations in tropical regions like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Columbia, just to name a very few spots of production. These plantations do a lot for governments, and unfortunately very little for the regular people who work on and around them. While there is a lot of talk surrounding adherence to international business regulations, there is also a widespread turn away from palm oil that leaves millions of workers worldwide without jobs or means of support. Yes, the abandonment of the palm oil industry is bad for people who live in regions that have been almost wholly dependent on the product.

The larger and more complex problem to consider is that palm oil plantations, owned by intrusive foreigners and driven by demand and profit, have both the permission and the power to pack up and leave when demand for the product diminishes, further cementing the exploitative nature of the industry itself. Clearly, the issues stemming form colonial plantations have been going on for centuries and will continue to affect and infect the quality of lives for too many individuals, and one historical point remains to be stated:  palm oil’s legacy is both everlasting and irrevocable, as its victims continue to suffer even after it’s production is removed.

After this lengthy and passionate exposition on the harmful political and cultural issues surrounding a product that is overwhelmingly prevalent in foods, soaps and other personal use products, it is only fair to point to the politics surrounding the ingredients we use in our soap. At Co-soap we believe that true cultural and political reform comes from people themselves, and that is what we want to share with you. We want you to know that the few ingredients we do select to include in your soap were chosen with socially-sustainable concepts in mind, and hopefully this idea of emphasizing people over profitability (preposterous, isn’t it!?) is a message we can help disseminate. Until next time, stay clean.


    • The Cambridge World History of Food. ed. Kenneth Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, 2000.


This entry was posted in Essential Oils, History, Soap Ingredients and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Palm oil problems: a legacy of profit-over-people

  1. Greg Elenbaas says:

    Great article! Also Co-Soapers, Palm Oil production is very land use intensive! Every time palm oil is extracted from a palm tree it needs to be cut down. This requires much more land consumption than harvesting the oil from the fruit of a tree that produces annually, for example coconuts, albeit coconut production does have its own set of problems. What’s more Palm Oil Plantations usually displace rain forest and are a major cause of deforestation. Stay tuned for a future post delving more into the detrimental effects on the environment of this destructive oil.

  2. Pingback: Animal Rights Conference 2011 | Co-Soap Cooperative Blog

  3. Nurten says:

    Sweet information, incredible web page template, stick to the good work

  4. Pingback: Palm oil problems part II: slash and burn agriculture, deforestation and environmental pillaging | Co-Soap Cooperative Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


* Copy this password:

* Type or paste password here:

29,215 Spam Comments Blocked so far by Spam Free Wordpress

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>